As questions continue to be asked of Arsenal and their ability to challenge for silverware domestically and in Europe, Arsene Wenger’s men keep giving mixed answers. But Lucas Perez’s dazzling display in Tuesday’s encounter proved that the Gunners look capable of standing up to the challenge this season.
A hat-trick from Perez and an Alex Iwobi goal in a 4-1 trouncing of Basel on Tuesday, coupled with Ludogorets’ 2-2 draw with Paris Saint-Germain, sees Arsenal finish top of the group for just the second time in the last five years. It also ensures they finished the group campaign unbeaten for the first time since 2005-06 – the year they reached the final.
A mixed starting XI from Wenger allowed him to show off the strength he has in his side. Perez’s hat-trick in just his second Champions League appearance for the club proves that potency to call upon, and that he, Kieran Gibbs, Rob Holding and Gabriel were effective on rare starts will also reassure the manager.
However, beating Basel and Ludogorets twice should come as no surprise for the north London side. Instead, it’s the games against the more ambitious and lucrative clubs of the competition that tell the real condition their chances of success are when it comes to competing for the big competitions. They are looking strong enough against the smaller teams, but two draws with PSG in the Champions League, and a loss to Liverpool and draws with Tottenham and Manchester United in the English top-flight, will not fill fans with a great deal of confidence.
In the Premier League, the Gunners have been able to keep the pace with the impressive Chelsea and Liverpool. A historically tough month for Arsenal, their dealing with injury problems and high-profile matches in November was pivotal in them remaining in a strong position. It’s commendable that Wenger’s men remained unbeaten until ending the month with a 2-0 EFL Cup loss, but that they drew three games made the run less thrilling.
And their Champions League campaign has gone along a similar tone. While fans will be hoping history repeats itself with another unbeaten group stage leading to a final, their inability to get the better of their main group rivals cannot be ignored.
Despite finishing first, Arsenal can end up with a brutal second round tie. Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen are potential opponents, as are either Real Madrid or Borussia Dortmund, and Juventus or Sevilla.
While Wenger’s side beat Real Madrid in the last-16 on their march to the final, in 2006, the Spanish club could hardly get beyond the second round in those years, much like Arsenal now. If they are to break with the trend and progress beyond the first knockout round for the first time since 2009-10 and make a claim as potential European champions, it is imperative that they start to stand up well to the bigger teams.
With Alexis Sanchez in stunning form and Mesut Ozil the ever-reliable creator adding goals to his team, the extra proof that Lucas Perez can find the net among the rest of an impressive supporting cast will fill Arsenal fans with belief. But, with a fairly average record in big games so far this season, they should not get too excited.